Fixing Illinois’ criminal justice system means embracing sentencing reform, removing barriers to work
By Bryant Jackson-Green
In Illinois’ most recent legislative session, the state took steps to rein in juvenile transfers to adult courts and expand eligibility for certificates of good conduct that former offenders can use to show they’ve reformed.
But there’s still plenty of work ahead, and Illinois must look to foundational reforms, such as sentencing reform and enabling ex-offenders to re-enter the workforce, if it ever hopes to achieve Gov. Bruce Rauner’s goal of reducing the state’s prison population 25 percent by 2025.
Illinois’ prisons remain overcrowded at nearly 148 percent capacity, which is the highest rate in the country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And operating the Illinois Department of Corrections cost taxpayers $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2015 – to say nothing of the billions spent on police, courts and jail administration at all levels of government.
With smart policy and legislative changes, Illinois can achieve a lower crime rate, lower incarceration rate and smarter spending on criminal justice, while maintaining public safety.
Illinois must focus on reforms that: ensure each sentence fits a person’s crime; relieve budgets by using cost-effective alternatives to incarceration where possible; and remove barriers that keep former offenders out of legal work.
Illinois can start with sentencing reform. Some crimes, such as nonviolent drug offenses, would be better handled through drug or mental health treatment than incarceration.
One Illinois program, Adult Redeploy, funds local communities that create alternatives to prison for those struggling with drug addiction. These treatment programs cost just $4,400 a year per participant, compared to prison, which costs over $22,000 per inmate annually. But not every county participates in these programs. Instead of spending millions more each year in increased prison budgets, Illinois should invest some of those funds in expanding drug and mental health treatment that addresses the problems underlying many crimes. This wouldn’t just save money; it also would free up room in overcrowded state prisons to safely house those who pose a threat to public safety.
Next, by encouraging job training and removing barriers to work, Illinois can reduce the number of people who cycle through the justice system. Nearly 45 percent of offenders released from Illinois prisons will return within three years. There are many reasons why this happens, but a major cause is that work opportunities are often closed off to those with felony records.
Private employers are often reluctant to hire ex-offenders, but government unnecessarily exacerbates the problem. On the state level, there are at least 118 professions for which government either must or may deny a license to anyone with a felony record. Anyone who aspires to be a barber, boxer, cosmetologist, funeral home director, accountant or roofer, to name just a few occupations, can be turned away by the government long after he or she has served time and paid his or her debt to society.
These limitations make little sense for a state seeking to reduce crime and welfare dependency. Those released from prison should be expected to support themselves and their families. But they can’t do this if government makes it even more difficult for them to find work.
It took decades to build the system of mass incarceration we have today, and it will take time to right-size Illinois’ criminal justice system. Not everyone will agree on every possible reform. But securing fair and effective sentences for those convicted of crimes and creating better work opportunities for rehabilitated former offenders are two goals that deserve broad support. By pushing forward with reform, Illinois can save money, protect public safety, and ensure a smarter and fairer justice system for all.